The Musée Carnavalet, or the museum of the history of Paris, was one of the first museums I ever visited in the city. An elegant (though traditional) collection displayed in the 16th-century Hôtel de Carnavalet in the heart of the Marais, it was one of the reasons I decided I wanted to write about Paris museums in the first place. In fact, I was a bit surprised when it was announced that the museum would be undergoing several years of major renovations.
But when I visited the reopened Carnavalet recently, I understood. The refurbished space is still charming in all the ways it was before, but now the museum flows in new ways. Its spiral staircases and stone passageways lead you through millennia of Paris history as though it’s an effortless story to tell. The modern touches of the renovation, like the wide copper staircase that flows into the first hall, complement rather than distract from the collection.
From Gaul to the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages through the Revolution and the modern era, the Carnavalet tells a detailed if conventional story of the city through a blend of art, documents, objects and narrative. This makes even distant history feel approachable. However, it’s important to consider how limited the Carnavalet’s view of Paris history is; the museum presents a Gallic, white and male vision of a fundamentally diverse city and population. Given the funds and time put into this renovation, it’s disappointing to see that greater efforts weren’t made to be more representative of this reality. (Thanks to Twitter reader Jennifer for reminding me to remain critical of these issues.)
The new Musée Carnavalet is a light-touch renovation that lifts the museum to new heights. The space is now a mix of modern and historic, much like Paris architecture at large. If only the story it told was as diverse as the city itself.
xx la Muséophile
Le Musée Carnavalet, 23 rue de Sévigné, 75003 Paris, métro: Saint-Paul (line 1) or Chemin-Vert (line 8)
Permanent collections free to all
Opening hours: Every day except Tuesday: 10am to 6pm